In working with parents this is a chapter from my book that I often share and get consistent feedback that it has helped.
Helping kids frame an experience
One of the most powerful ways that a parent can help a child is by helping the child properly frame an experience, especially an unpleasant one. After 30 years of working with parents this has come to be one of the most useful concepts. It allows a child to interpret an experience in a way that does not amplify the feeling of hurt, of being a victim or powerless.
One common situation where this can apply is when a child is being bothered by another. We are sometimes too quick to label such behavior as bullying. If it is, we should address it fully, but it is often bothersome, teasing or annoying behavior.
An example of this occurred when a friend’s first grade daughter reported that some of the girls in another first grade were making faces at her and making negative comments about the way she did the bars on the play structure. I urged the woman to speak with the teacher to simply make her aware so that she could remind all children of the unacceptable nature of such behavior.
In addition to that, the mother went to the playground with her daughter on the weekend. She was thinking the girl might benefit from a little practice, so she could feel more confident on the bars. What the mother actually discovered was that her daughter was able to do 2 rungs per swing, better than the other children.
This changed the way she helped her daughter. It was an opportunity to offer her daughter guidance on how to interpret the experience. She explained that sometimes, even if you do something well, it is different from another person and the only reaction they know how to have is to criticize your way. The girl was bright and able to understand that sometimes we have to be patient with others as they learn that to be different does not really warrant criticism. This understanding will serve her well as she navigates the complicated world of girldom.
Whether we call it relabeling, reframing or reinterpreting it is a great habit and great gift to give a child, especially since so many social encounters can be vague or ambiguous.
Another situation where this approach can be helpful is where the child has a very strict or critical teacher. Often the teacher’s style is the issue rather than the content. This insight can be very helpful to the child. One such situation occurred with a sensitive little second grade boy. His mother made an appointment because he was, for the first time, feeling very discouraged and uneasy about school.
He was a good kid and a good student, but the teacher tended to be quite stern and her feedback was often very clipped. She didn’t offer a lot of smiles or encouragement. I knew this woman to be an excellent teacher, serious and dedicated but a little harsh sometimes with the kids.
Our work took a few sessions, both with Mom in attendance, and our approach was “it’s just information.” Through discussion and examples we helped him reframe her input in a less personally crushing way. The boy was eventually able to see that even though some people send a message in a gentle way and some in a stern way, neither is a judgment of us as a person. It’s just information.
Fortunately the school that I worked at then had teachers of all kinds. Some ebullient, some reserved and some in between. The boy was encouraged to observe the feedback he heard each week. For example, running in the hall, getting books out too slowly, not putting materials away. From these he was to extract “the information.”
This approach helped reduce the anxiety he was feeling in class. Additionally he learned that by seeing it as just information it was indeed important to extract the information and then adjust his behavior accordingly.
Another example of this occurred when a fourth grade girl Lilly, was feeling very rejected by her friend Bella. The girls often played together on the weekends, but at school Bella seldom played with her and was, to a great extent, taken over by another girl. Lilly’s mother was having a dilemma because she had often had Bella over and made many nice play dates for the girls with crafts, cooking and other creative activities.
The mother was also feeling a little hurt, wondering if she should continue to provide such nice events when the daughter was often being left out by this friend at school. We spent just one session together and I suggested that she frame the situation as, “Some friends we spend a lot of time with at school and some people are more ‘weekend friends’ where there is not the distraction or pull by other friends or activities.” With the label “weekend friend” the girl was asked if she wanted to continue having Bella as a weekend friend even though she didn’t always treat her like a good friend at school. Lilly took just a minute to decide that the “weekend friend’ arrangement was preferable to punishing the friend by discontinuing the wonderful craft Saturdays. It worked quite well because Lilly was able to frame it as just one of the ways friends can be rather than some big rejection.
I saw the mother many years later and she was eager to share that she was glad she had let Lilly decide. The arrangement made for very nice weekend activities even though the friendship at school had its ups and downs. 10 years later the girls were at different colleges, but hey were in constant communication and spent every vacation together. She was sure they’d be friends forever.
There are children who are natural “awfulizers” and tend to perceive in an unfavorable way. They may need a little more help with this tendency, but most kids need it at some time. It’s important to first acknowledge and not dismiss the emotion. Dismissing may simply cause the child to hold even more to their interpretation, so that the parent understands and responds to the emotions. Clever parents can also highlight the reframing skill by pointing it out in their own experience. It’s a simple task to just point out to the child an event where they decided to perceive it in a positive or at least a not too negative way. Sometimes as we try to be good models for our children we even get the additional benefit of positive changes in our own outlook.